Freedom of Speech

Think before you speak! Be careful with your words. Speak wisely! We have been told since we were kids to be aware of what we say. We have been taught how powerful words can be and how we ought to be careful when using them.Our founding fathers also placed a great deal of value on our right to speak. So much so that they made it the first part of our Bill of Rights: The Freedom of Speech. Over the years, speech has evolved to include not only the printed medium, but to also include anything that has been said on the Internet. In fact, our proclivity to blurt out our thoughts before we can digest them, often leads to us writing things in an emotional state on sites such as Twitter, Facebook, etc. With this in mind,  many Americans wonder if the concept of freedom of speech should exist today. Our courts have be inundated with cases that address our right to free speech. So, how do the privileges guaranteed in the Bill of Rights – specifically the Freedom of Speech – apply to modern American Life? How do contemporary challenges to the Right to Free Speech affect the Constitution of the United States of America?

The first case I studied was the Lane v. Franks. This case involved a public employee’s fight for his freedom of speech in the context of revenge. Edward Lane was the director of the Community Intensive Training for Youth Program (CITY) at the Central Alabama Community College (CACC). In 2006, while auditing CITY’s finances, Lane found out that Suzanne Schmitz, a state representative who was on the CITY’s payroll, had never performed work for the program. Lane was told that, by contacting Schmitz and terminating her employment, he would bring negative attention to the CACC and himself. However, after Schmitz refused to work, Lane terminated her contract with CITY. In retaliation, Schmitz sue to get her job back. Steve Franks, president of CACC at the time, wanted to reduce the workforce because of budget cuts. In 2008, Franks sent termination letters to Lane and twenty-nine other CITY members who were under probation and served less than three years. However, a few days later, Franks rescinded all of the terminations except for Lane and one other employee because he claimed those employees were not under probation. Lane sued Franks because he argued that his termination was a result of his testifying against Schmitz during her trial. Therefore, his termination was a violation of his First Amendment rights.[1]

The second case I studied was Bland v. Roberts. This case involved a sheriff from Hampton, Virginia who was sued by six of his former co-workers. Sheriff B.J. Roberts fired Bobby Bland, along with five others employees, because of their support to Jim Adams, Sheriff Robert’s opposition during his 2009 reelection campaign. The group claimed that Sheriff Roberts violated their right to free speech when he fired them after he was re-elected. Sheriff Roberts discovered that the co-workers had “liked” Adams’ Facebook page, while some of them, also, had attended a campaign cookout for Adams, displayed bumper stickers that were in favor of Adams while talking negativity about Roberts, and had openly refused to support Roberts’ reelection. However, the group argued that their terminations were unlawful because Sheriff Roberts knew about their active support of Jim Adams. They also argued that Sheriff Roberts abused his authority to reinforce his reelection campaign by making them provide amenities in support of those efforts. It was on December 9, 2011 that Sheriff Roberts filed a “motion for summary judgment” in which he said that there was no real issue of material fact because his co-workers did not provide enough evidence of the claim. Sheriff Roberts said that he fired them because of poor work performance, budget cuts and “lack of harmony and efficiency” in the office. On April 24, 2012, the District Court granted Sheriff Roberts’ Motion for Summary Judgment saying that the rights to freedom of speech failed the first part of the test, which was speaking out on a matter of public concern. The court found out that the speech at issue was in fact not speaking out and therefore not speaking at all. The court further explained that Plaintiff Carter’s “liking” of Adams’ Facebook page was “insufficient speech to merit constitutional protection.” The court held further held that “liking” the Facebook page was not an actual statement, but rather just “one click of a button.” However, the plaintiffs filed a notice of appeal on May 24, 2012 and the case is ongoing. [2]

The third case I studied was Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus. The Susan B. Anthony List (SBA List) is a pro-life organization that opposes the  the Affordable Care Act (ACA), an act that was passed by Congress in 2010. Before the 2010 general elections, SBA List decided to release advertisements disapproving Congressman Steven Driehaus of Ohio’s reelection, a member of Congress who voted in favor of the ACA. The SBA List wanted to put up a billboard reading, “Shame on Steve Driehaus! Driehaus voted FOR taxpayer-funded abortion.” The company that owned the billboard decided not to put it up because Driehaus threatened to bring a lawsuit against them. The SBA List argued that speech critical of public officials is an important type of protected speech under the First Amendment. The Amicus Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence (CCJ) argued that the First Amendment drafters understood the importance of free political dialogue between the politicians and the voting public.[3] As a result, it was set as precedence that billboard companies could not prohibit citizens from expressing their opinions of public officials.

The similarities between these three cases are that they all had a person misuse their position in office to censor what the others wanted to say. In the first case, Lane V. Franks, Lane is terminated from his job by his superior, despite trying to save the company money. In the second case, Bland V. Roberts, a group of six workers were fired because of their support of an opponent. In the third case, Susan B. Anthony List V. Driehaus, Driehaus prevented the Susan B. Anthony List from voicing their opinion because he forced the billboard company not to display SBA’s ad. So, in all of these cases, we can see that an individual was penalized for using his or her Freedom of Speech by someone in a position of influence.

Almost 250 years after the Bill of Rights was initiated, we find ourselves in a different world where our need to look at whether this right seems relevant today. The founding fathers and the citizens in 1791 had come from countries where their words could often have led to their death. It is for that reason, they emphasized and valued the right to free speech. Today, we citizens, seem to forget how fortunate this Right is. Especially, if we take a minute to look outside our borders and see how other nations treat their citizens abilities to speak. However, even though we have this wonderful gift from our founding fathers, we must not neglect that at times this right does get abused. And with changes that even our forefathers could not have dreamt off – that is, the internet and social media –  we have to wonder if we still are entitled to this right, or should we be held accountable for our words.

Bibliography

[1] Edward R. Lane V.  Steve Franks, 13-483, (S.C. 2012)
[2] Bobby Bland V. B.J. Roberts, 12-1671, (S.C. 2013)
[3] Susan B. Anthony List V. Driehaus, 13-193, (S.C. 2014)

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